WASHINGTON — Republican vice presidential candidate Dick Cheney had surgery Wednesday to open a clogged artery after suffering what doctors called a “very slight” heart attack, knocking George W. Bush off stride in his struggle to win Florida – and the presidency.
Doctors at George Washington University Hospital predicted a hospital stay of a few days and a recovery of a few weeks for the 59-year-old former defense secretary, who has a history of heart disease dating to his late 30s. The illness added new uncertainty to a White House bid under a cloud ever since America voted, more than two weeks ago.
Cheney suffered three heart attacks more than a decade ago and had quadruple bypass surgery in 1988 to clear clogged arteries. Doctors gave him a clean bill of health when Bush chose him as his running mate this summer, but Cheney has since refused to release his past medical records.
Throughout most of the day, the Bush campaign and doctors at the hospital had insisted that Cheney had not suffered a heart attack, although he had suffered some chest pains in recent years.
“Dick Cheney is healthy. He did not have a heart attack,” Bush told reporters in Texas – even as his running mate was undergoing surgery. Bush did not mention the surgery and called Cheney’s decision to go to the hospital “a precautionary measure.” Bush’s spokeswoman, Karen Hughes, said the Texas governor “had been told the secretary had not had a heart attack.”
Doctors announced a news conference that Cheney had not had a heart attack. But new tests they had received two hours earlier revealed elevated levels of cardiac enzymes indicating a heart attack. Still, the doctors waited until well after 4 p.m. to correct the record.
“There was a very slight heart attack,” said cardiologist Alan Wasserman.
Doctors also revealed that the clogged artery causing Cheney’s chest pain was 90 percent blocked – meaning little blood was getting through that artery and reopening it was crucial.
Cheney’s ordeal — he checked himself into the hospital – was the latest surprise to rock one of the most extraordinary election campaigns in American history.
Under the worst circumstances, a vice president-in-waiting who becomes unable to take office can be replaced by the presidential candidate with the blessing of his party – as long as that happens before the Electoral College meets in December.
But doctors foresaw nothing that would force Cheney from carrying out vice presidential duties should Bush and he prevail in Florida.
Still, his condition could hamper already delayed efforts by Bush to plan for a government. Cheney has been Bush’s point man on transition.
Bush and his aides brushed off questions about the stability of the GOP ticket and whether they were making contingency plans in case Cheney’s illness sidelined him from planning any White House transition or serving a new Bush administration.
“Secretary Cheney will make a great vice president,” Bush said, before launching a more lengthy attack on Gore and the Florida justices for legal developments there.
Asked whether it would be prudent to have a backup plan, spokeswoman Hughes replied: “No, it’s not.” She added that Cheney has had similar pains in recent years, but not since Bush picked him to be his running mate last summer.
President Clinton said he hoped Cheney will be “well and fine.”
“I need to call him and write him a note,” Clinton told reporters.
Doctors said they did not think campaign-related stress was a factor in Cheney’s heart attack, which occurred only a few hours after Florida’s Supreme Court decided to permit manual ballot recounts in some Florida counties, a key victory for Gore.
Cheney admitted himself to the hospital about 4:30 a.m. EST Wednesday with chest pains, his wife, Lynne, at his side. Testing two hours later revealed an artery that had narrowed since his last heart checkup in 1996, according to Wasserman.
Through a blood vessel in his leg, doctors threaded a stent to prop open the narrowed artery, a minimally invasive surgical procedure that didn’t require putting Cheney under general anesthesia. It should prevent further symptoms, Wasserman said.
“It would be exceedingly unlikely for him to undergo a repeat bypass operation,” Dr. Jonathan Reiner, Cheney’s personal physician, told reporters on Wednesday.
Cheney has said he quit smoking, exercises regularly and takes medicine to lower his cholesterol.
“It is possible that had he not come in something serious could have happened,” Wasserman said.
Wasserman said Cheney would spend two to three days recovering but should have no restrictions after he leaves.
However, stents do frequently reclog in heart disease patients, particularly those with a long history of the disease like Cheney’s. Patients with these conditions need to be monitored closely.
Hughes did not provide details on how often Cheney had experienced chest pains that required medical attention. She said Cheney had not had any episodes since he was selected to be Bush’s running mate, but she did not say when Cheney’s last hospital visit had occurred.
Reiner said earlier in the presidential campaign that cardiac stress tests “have been stable and unchanged for the past several years.”
Cheney had a cold in the final weeks before the election but otherwise was in good health throughout a strenuous fall campaign.
Cheney’s first attack, at age 37, was in 1978. He had a second in 1984 and a third in 1988. All were described as mild. In August of 1988, Cheney underwent the bypass surgery because of arterial blockages.